© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2014

[Note: this study looks at ‘sanctification’ as a concept of salvation; it does not focus on the truth of the on-going process of ‘sanctification’ in Christian lives.]


Most of us for some time during our Christian lives, and some of us probably at the present, make the mistake of thinking of sanctification as relating solely to our manner of life. We have this almost unavoidable automatic tendency to think that sanctification refers to the process of becoming more and more like God, and only to that. We think this way because of one or both of two reasons:

[1] we have been taught that this is what sanctification or being holy means, and therefore understand it that way whenever we read the words saint, holy, holiness, sanctification, and sanctify;

[2] we are so blindly self-centred in our understanding of Christian truth that when we read in the Bible what God has actually and already done for us in Christ we do not hear what the words are telling us, and so misinterpret them to refer to something we have to do or achieve or become.

But when we take a close look at what the Bible says about sanctification we find that this word also is a word of salvation, teaching us of an incredible, unexpected purpose of God in the death of his Son.



In the Old Testament the words qadas [verb], qodes [noun] and qados [adjective] are used in reference to ‘sanctification’ and ‘sanctify’ and to the related concepts: holiness, holy, dedicated, devoted, separated, consecrated, sacred, set apart for God’s special use.

Similarly in the New Testament, hagiasmos, hagiosune, hagiotes, hagios, hagiazo, refer to ‘sanctification’ words: holy, holiness, sanctification, saint, sanctify, make holy.

The common denominator is all of these words and all of their uses is the concept of something that is distinctly different, something that, one way or another, is set apart from everything else. To be ‘sanctified’ is to be ‘made holy’, that is to be set apart by God for God’s special use and purpose.


B.1 The concept that God is holy

Perhaps the root of our difficulty in understanding sanctification comes from our misunderstanding of the concept of God’s holiness. When the Old Testament teaches us that God is holy, his moral goodness is only a part of that description. More specifically and more importantly the holiness of God speaks of his absolute otherness, his total uniqueness, his complete disassociation and difference from all else that might call itself ‘god’ and from everything else that exists. He is the only one of his kind: he is holy: he is totally set apart. He has no equal. His beauty, his goodness, his perfection, his power, his majesty are all unequalled and unparalleled. He cannot be likened to anything or anyone, for there is nothing and no one like him – there is nothing up there on the same level as he is to which he can be compared. Everything falls far short of this unique, one-of-a-kind, ‘holy’ God.


Task #1: How is God’s holiness portrayed in these verses?

Exodus 15:11

Joshua 24:19

1Samuel 2:2

2Kings 19:22

Job 6:8-10

Psalm 51:11

Psalm 99:5,9

Isaiah 1:4 [many times in Isaiah]

Isaiah 5:16

Isaiah 6:1-7

Isaiah 40:12-31

The fact that God is ‘holy’ means that he is no common, ordinary ‘god’; he is not such a ‘god’ that one can swap and change for another; he is not such a ‘god’ to whom one can display only a fickle, half-hearted allegiance; he is not such a ‘god’ who is willing to share worship and honour with other ‘gods’ or with other powers, including human powers. As Isaiah 40 graphically points out, this ‘Holy One’ is beyond comparison. Totally unique. Totally other. Totally awesome. Not just in his purity but in all that he is.


B.2 The concept that whatever belongs to God, or wherever God is, is ‘holy’

The Old Testament overwhelms us with the concept that whatever belongs to God, and wherever God is, is ‘holy’. It is holy simply because it is his. This derived holiness consists in belonging to God, in being wholly for God and for God’s special use, in being set apart from ordinary and common use and devoted/dedicated for use by and for God alone. Even ordinary, everyday objects and places are designated ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ by this consecration for the use, service or worship of the holy God.


Task #2: What is called ‘holy or ‘sanctified’ in these verses?

Exodus 3:5; Joshua 5:15

Exodus 16:23, 20:6; 31:12-15; 35:2

Exodus 19:6, 22:31; Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2; Ezra 9:2

Exodus 26:33,34

Exodus 28:2-4; 29:6,29; 39:30

Exodus 28:38

Exodus 29:33; Leviticus 7:1

Exodus 29:37

Exodus 30:25,31,32

Exodus 30:26-29

Exodus 30:34-38

Leviticus 5:15,16

Leviticus 19:24

Leviticus 23:3-8

Leviticus 25:12

Leviticus 27:28

Leviticus 27:30-32

Numbers 5:17

Numbers 6:1-8

Numbers 18:17

Nehemiah 11:1

Psalm 2:6

Psalm 5:7; 11:4

Psalm 20:6

Psalm 105:42

Physical objects are referred to as ‘holy’ because they are dedicated to, devoted to use in the worship of the holy God.  The people whom God chose and set apart to be his own people are called ‘holy’. They are his ‘holy people’ his ‘holy nation’, not because of any personal purity or godliness, but purely because God has made and called them his own, sovereignly incorporating them into his eternal purpose.

In addition the verbs ‘sanctify’ or ‘make holy’ are used in respect of:

The Sabbath – Genesis 2:3

The people – Exodus 19:14

The tabernacle – Exodus 29:43

Various objects in the tabernacle, the priests, or anything given or dedicated to the Lord – multiple references in Exodus and Leviticus.

The temple – 2Chronicles 7:16,20

Jeremiah – Jeremiah 1:5.

Here again we find the concept of being ‘sanctified’ as being consecrated to God by God for God.


B.3 The holy God commands his holy, set-apart people to be holy

Those whom he had made his holy, set-apart-for-himself people, God commands to ‘be holy’ because he is holy. Whereas we automatically think being holy is simply the opposite of committing moral sins, it includes far more that that. For instance:

  • God’s holy people ‘must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean’ [Leviticus 10:10]
  • They must ‘consecrate’ themselves and be holy, because God is holy [Leviticus 11:44-45]
  • As part of their holiness they must abstain from idolatry [Leviticus 19:2,4]
  • As part of their holiness they must keep themselves separate from all occult practices [Leviticus 20:6-7, 26-27]
  • As part of their holiness they must not profane the name of God [Leviticus 21:6; 22:32]

The command to be holy, therefore, is a command to be wholly for God: dedicated to him for his special use. It is a command given to those whom he has already called ‘holy’ because he has made them this own. This progressive holiness or sanctification is both distinct from salvation sanctification and grounded upon salvation sanctification. It cannot exist apart from salvation sanctification.



The New Testament sanctification words - sanctify, set apart, make holy, saints, holy, sanctification  -  stem from the one root. They are variously translated in different translations and in different texts, but all have the basic meaning of being set apart, and, specifically, set apart solely for God.

Thus, sanctification is a saving act of God in which he chooses to set apart people for himself by the power of his Holy Spirit, and on the basis of the work of Christ on the cross. This action is called sanctification, and, in this salvation aspect, it has nothing to do with the actions or ‘spirituality’ of the believer, and everything to do with saving action of God in Christ, by which he makes us his own.

C.1 The New Testament refers to Christians as ‘sanctified’

In five verses in the New Testament Christians are called ‘those who are sanctified’ or something similar:    

[1] ‘all those who are sanctified’ [Acts 20:32];

[2] ‘those who are sanctified by faith in me’ [Acts 26:18];

[3] ‘sanctified by the Holy Spirit’ [Romans 15:16];

[4] ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’ [1 Corinthians 1:2];

[5] ‘sanctified’ by God the Father [Jude 1 – some MSS read ‘loved’].

In each of these ‘sanctified’ is in the perfect tense, which indicates a completed action in the past, the effects of which remain in the present. We also must note that in each text ‘sanctified’ is written in the passive voice, which means that the action is done to us, not by us. Both the perfect tense and passive voice are important to our understanding of sanctification as a salvation concept. It is a completed action [with its result still in effect] in which God has set us apart as his own. Note this being sanctified is ‘by faith’ in Christ [Acts 26:18], ‘by the Holy Spirit’, and ‘in Christ Jesus’. It is not an action of our own, or an action in which we cooperate with God, but rather is the work of God alone.


C.2 Believers referred to as ‘saints’

In the New Testament the plural of the adjective ‘holy’ – hagioi – is translated ‘saints’, and of the 61 times it is used in this way it refers to Christian believers 60 times. Believers as a group were called ‘the holy ones’, that is, the ‘set apart ones’.  Of the New Testament letters only Galatians, James and 2 and 3 John do not refer to believers in this way. It is not a title reserved for particularly good people; it is referred to believers indiscriminately, including those, for example, in Corinth, where Paul had to rebuke them for various sins and failures. Every genuine believer in Christ is a ‘saint’ – someone set apart by God as ‘holy’ – someone set apart by God as his very own possession and for his very own purpose.


C.3 God’s work in saving the believer is called ‘sanctifying’

Not only are Christians called ‘sanctified’ and ‘saints’, but we also find that the saving work of God in Christ is referred to with the word ‘sanctify’.


Task #3: Scripture research
Note: in some of these texts some translations might have ‘made holy’ instead of ‘sanctified’.

For each reference answer these two questions:

1. Who sanctified whom?
2. What is the basis or cause of this sanctification?

1Corinthians 6:11


Ephesians 5:25b-26


Hebrews 2:11


Hebrews 10:10


Hebrews 13:12


Note also these two verses which refer to God choosing us for salvation through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

2Thessalonians 2:13


1Peter 1:2

In these verses God has sanctified or made people holy in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God, through the once-for-all sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, by the choice of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, through belief in the truth, and by the will of God, which Jesus came to do.


C.4 Christians are described as being ‘holy’ or possessing ‘holiness’ in Christ

There is yet another way in which genuine believers are seen as sanctified or holy. They are described or referred to as being ‘holy’ or possessing ‘holiness’ or ‘sanctification’ in Jesus Christ their Saviour, irrespective of the level of their present personal holiness.


Task #4: More Scripture research
Read the verses listed below. Answer these questions for each verse:

1. What ‘sanctification’ type words do these verses use to describe believers?
2. What is there in the verse or its context to indicate that this description is part of the salvation every believer possesses in Christ, and not a reference to personal holiness?

1Corinthians 1:30


1Corinthians 3:17


Ephesians 1:4


Colossians 1:22


Colossians 3:12


Hebrews 3:1


1Peter 2:5, 9



With the exception of the section on the holiness of God, and also section B.3, this study has been looking at ‘sanctification’ as a salvation word – as part of the salvation package that God freely gives us in Jesus Christ our Saviour.

In all of these the message is clear: Sanctification is the action of the Spirit of God in which he sets a person apart as his own. As such it embraces several other aspects of salvation: the gift of saving faith, the converting, regenerating work of the Holy Spirit; the redemption in which God delivers us from the dominion of darkness and places us safe in the kingdom of his Son; and as such it can only be done on the basis of those other aspects of salvation: the justification/righteousness from God which is given to us, the substitutionary atonement in which Christ took our place and bore our sin, and the forgiveness coming out of that. All of these grand aspects of salvation merge here in sanctification: God’s action in which he makes us his own special treasure.

This is why repeatedly the New Testament calls Christian believers ‘saints’: those set apart by God for God. It was not that these believers were pure or godly, or that they had done remarkable feats in the name of God: it was rather that God had made them his own.

It is also why we come across a few amazing statements, which, if we did not understand this saving action of God, could be quite threatening to us. Colossians 1:22 tells us that God’s purpose in reconciliation was ‘to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation’, and Ephesians 1:5 teaches that God ‘chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.’ These verses speak of the purpose and result of the work of Christ on the cross. They speak of our status or position in Christ, not of the state or condition of our daily living.

In Colossians 3:12 Paul addresses the believers as ‘God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved’. In 1Peter 2:5 and 9 believers are called ‘a holy priesthood’ and ‘a holy nation’.

Rather than being a threat and causing us to perhaps doubt our salvation because we do not perceive ourselves to be ‘holy’, these verses, speaking of God-given sanctification, are the motivation for lifestyle, or responsive, sanctification.

So Paul tells us in the Colossians passage: because you are holy (chosen and dearly loved by God), then pursue a lifestyle that reflects that [Colossians 3:12-4:6]. Similarly Peter tells us in his letter: because you are a chosen people, a holy nation and a royal priesthood, then make God known by the way you live among people who do not know God [1Peter 2:9-12].

Just as Jesus told his disciples: you are salt, so be salty; you are light, so be lights [Matthew 5:13-16], so in these passages God is telling us: you are holy, so be holy; you are sanctified, so be sanctified in your living. No matter how much we try to be holy or sanctified in ourselves it all counts for nothing if we are not first sanctified, made holy, set apart by God for himself. Only a light can be a light. Only salt can be salty. Only the sanctified can be sanctified. Only the holy can be holy.

Thus the difference between positional sanctification and conditional sanctification is simple:

Positional [in Christ] sanctification: Already sanctified/holy – because of Christ's death. What we are in Christ: God’s special treasure. God’s special possession. Belonging to God and for God’s special use. A finished work. Includes a concept similar to justification – in that we are reckoned ‘holy’ because of Jesus Christ. The motivation and foundation of conditional sanctification.

Conditional [practical/personal/progressive] sanctification: Moving towards holiness of life – through the inner transforming action of the Spirit [2Corinthians 3:18]. What we are in ourselves. The degree to which what we are and do, reflects the holiness of God. A work in progress. The outworking and expression of positional sanctification.


D.1 Not a second, subsequent experience, but part of salvation

A warning from Hoekema [who uses the term ‘definitive sanctification’ rather than ‘positional sanctification’]:

‘It should be added that definitive sanctification does not mean an experience separate from or subsequent to justification, as a kind of “second blessing.” In its experiential sense, definitive sanctification is simultaneous with justification, as an aspect of union with Christ. It is also simultaneous with regeneration, the initial bestowal of spiritual life, by which we are enabled to believe. Though regeneration is causally prior to faith, justification, and definitive sanctification, it is not chronologically prior.’ [p205 Saved by Grace].

This is an important warning, for there are many who teach a kind of ‘instantaneous sanctification’ in which a Christian by receiving a ‘second blessing’ attains a level of personal sanctification beyond which sin is no longer a problem. Consider these excerpts from a sermon of John Wesley:

‘ … as all who believe they are sanctified, declare with one voice, that the change was wrought in a moment, I cannot but believe that sanctification is commonly, if not always, an instantaneous work…

‘First, believe that God has promised to save you from all sin, and to fill you with all holiness. Secondly, believe that he is able thus "to save to the uttermost all that come unto God through him." Thirdly, believe that he is willing, as well as able, to save you to the uttermost; to purify you from all sin, and fill up all your heart with love. Believe, Fourthly, that he is not only able, but willing to do it now. Not when you come to die; not at any distant time; not to-morrow, but to-day. He will then enable you to believe, it is done, according to his word: And then "patience shall have its perfect work; that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing."

14. Ye shall then be perfect. The Apostle seems to mean by this expression, teleioi, ye shall be wholly delivered from every evil work; from every evil word; from every sinful thought; yea, from every evil desire, passion, temper; from all inbred corruption, from all remains of the carnal mind, from the body of sin; and ye shall be renewed in the spirit of your mind, in every right temper, after the image of Him that created you, in righteousness and true holiness. Ye shall be entire, holokleroi. (The same word which the Apostle uses to the Christians in Thessalonica: [1 Thes. 5:23]) This seems to refer, not so much to the kind as to the degree of holiness; as if he had said, "Ye shall enjoy as high a degree of holiness as is consistent with your present state of pilgrimage;" - and ye shall want nothing; the Lord being your Shepherd, your Father, your Redeemer, your Sanctifier, your God, and your all, will feed you with the bread of heaven, and give you meat enough. He will lead you forth beside the waters of comfort, and keep you every moment: So that loving him with all your heart, (which is the sum of all perfection,) you will "rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks," till "an abundant entrance is ministered unto you into his everlasting kingdom! ‘


Task #5: Discussion
Discuss Wesley’s statement about entire sanctification. How does this differ from the Biblical teaching on [1] our positional sanctification in Christ, and [2] progressive sanctification?